In the VIP Room
Back in 1967, Procol Harum turned the music world on to a bold new sound with their classic A Whiter Shade of Pale Some of the most musically significant albums of the '60s and '70s followed including A Salty Dog, Home, Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit. Although it's been twelve years since Procol Harum reformed for their 1991 comeback effort, The Prodigal Stranger, they more than live up to their legacy with the 2003 release of The Well's on Fire. Released on Eagle Records, the thirteen track CD spotlights the original Procol songwriting team of Gary Brooker and Keith Reid in prime form. Also in the 2003 line-up are Procol's original keyboardist, the great Matthew Fisher (organ), Geoff Whitehorn (guitars), Mark Brzezicki (drums) and Matt Pegg (bass). Procol Harum are the masters when it comes to melding symphonic rock with scorching blues-rock licks and The Well's on Fire is a splendid return to form. Brooker's indelible melodies and piano work and Reid's intricate word play re-emerge as if they hardly missed a beat. And filling the shoes of one time Procol guitar icons Robin Trower and Mick Grabham, Geoff Whitehorn brings a fresh and powerful rock dynamic to the table. Read the CD booklet and you'll see that there's still something magic in play on The Well's on Fire. The following interview with Geoff Whitehorn and Gary Brooker took place at the Bottom Line in NYC before the band's performance there on Friday 9 May 2003.
On 9 May 2003 I had the rare opportunity to see Procol Harum live at New York's Bottom Line, the famous downtown theater that has sadly long since closed down. At that time, Procol had just released their 2003 album The Well's on Fire and were in prime form that night. Attending the show with me that night was photographer Richard Cervone and May Pang – both long time fans of the great Procol Harum. As expected the concert was outstanding and just before the show I had a chance to meet and interview Procol's legendary singer / songwriter Gary Brooker and guitarist Geoff Whitehorn – the latest guitarist in a band that has featured guitar icons such as Robin Trower and Mick Grabham. As you can see from some of the pictures taken that night, Procol's lyricist Keith Reid was there, along with keyboardist Matthew Fisher, who also played brilliantly during the show that night. This full length archive interview – first featured in the July 2003 issue of 20th Century Guitar – spotlights interviews with both Gary Brooker and Geoff Whitehorn, who were eager to discuss a range of vintage Procol Harum history.
Gary it's great to see you back in NYC. I think the last time I saw you play was at the 20th Century Guitar Lilies show with Roy Wood, Steve Howe and Ian McDonald. Do you remember that show?
Annie Haslam ... I remember Phoebe Snow! When was that?
That was at Irving Plaza.
In November, 1995.
It's been about twelve years since the last Procol Harum album, The Prodigal Stranger. How did you hook up with Eagle Rock Records to make The Well's on Fire?
Well the CEO of Eagle is one of my shooting partners ... drinking partners. And he lives quite close to me. But there was no pressure from that end. Apparently, a couple of these guys from his office probably knew that I knew him or knew that he knew me, vice versa ... but it came from, if you like, the A&R people, the marketing people. They said, ‘"We'd be interested in making a Procol Harum album'. Because sometimes, if you know the boss, it just doesn't work. You know what I'm saying? If he tells people, ‘You gotta put Procol Harum out' and they go, ‘What the hell for?' ... that doesn't work. But when it comes from within, I think that was a good way of doing it. So they just said, ‘Would you?', and we said ‘Yeah'. Read the lyric book.
It's a cool company. Have they put it out in England?
They've got it for the world, yeah.
The Well's on Fire is a pretty cool name for an album. I'm curious how you came up with ...
An uncool one? (laughter) Well to tell you the truth, we usually get our titles from one of the songs. I mean, there's a few exceptions, like Exotic Birds and Fruit for example. That was the name of the painting that was on the cover. It seemed to fit. Of course, the world's changed a bit and often, if you've got an album out, the radio people might think that the one that you call ‘it' is the main one to play. So that didn't seem to fit any of the ones that we had. We didn't want to push one forward like that. And anything we did want to push forward didn't have a good album title, like ... say Shadow Boxed would not have been a good album title. And so we then look at all the lyrics to see if there's a line somewhere that will fit. Didn't find one there. And then Keith Reid suggested that we call it The Well's on Fire, which is a line from another lyric ...
Yeah I heard there was another song with that lyric in there.
We haven't written it yet, he's written the lyrics. And we just thought, ‘will that fit?'
Procol Harum albums always start off with a killer cut like Nothing But The Truth and Whisky Train and fittingly, the new album starts off with An Old English Dream which is a brilliant rocker. How do you interpret the sentiment behind that song?
Doom and destruction, it's all over now! (laughter)
It's amazing that Keith lives so close to the old World Trade Center site. The Well's on Fire song The Blink of an Eye is a haunting reminder of that cataclysm.
Well it's either that or it's the first V-2 that dropped on London in 1945. Could be either ...
Some of the Well's on Fire songs go back a bit to the early days. So Far Behind another great song was first played way back in the '70s. Sounds like it could've been on Shine on Brightly or something.
It does ... Chris Copping reminded us about it just as we went in the studio. And I played it with him in Australia once. We made kind of a demo of it. So he sent it over to remind us. I found the missing third verse, which I'd forgotten about. And so we ran it up the flagpole, and it was alright. This band played it well. Played it in the studio. Yeah, that's good, very ‘Procol-y'!
Any special Procol rarities that you're bringing out for this American tour? I heard you played Thin End of the Wedge recently once in New York.
That was the last time [sic] we played it. That was in 1991. That was too evil.
Are there lots of unreleased or unfinished tracks in the Procol repertoire?
Nah ... nothing.
I heard that was an unreleased Procol song called Last Train to Niagara?
Well, that's the only one! (laughter) You had to pick that one, didn't you? (laughter) It was a stage song where we incorporated lots of our songs in it in some way, hidden. There was a big song going on, but every now and again it went into a version of something else or ... variations, really. It's twelve minutes long. We cut it down from 53 minutes! (laughter)
I reviewed the CD reissue of Broken Barricades which came out on the Gazza label. Is that your company?
Gazza. It's nothing really. It's just that you put Gazza on it and get it pressed up down the road! (laughter)
Is that the best sounding version of Broken Barricades? It's one of the great sounding Procol Harum albums.
It's different. It's got great guitar on it. Great guitar sound. There's hardly any organ on that. Well, actually there's a proper version that's come out now, with the original artwork, etc. etc ... It's a digi-pak CD on Repertoire. When we put that out we didn't have anything coming out. People kept saying, ‘When are you going to make a new album?' So the best we could do is put out Broken Barricades. We couldn't find any artwork so we thought we'd just stick a cover on. In fact, nobody wanted to buy it anyway so ... (laughter).
One of my favorite Procol Harum albums is Procol's Ninth. I was always interested in knowing how Procol Harum hooked with Leiber and Stoller, who produced the Procol's Ninth album. What was it like working with them?
Awful! (laughter) Yeah, awful. They used to stop at seven in the evening, go off for dinner and never come back. (laughter) We were kind of 4am people. And Jerry Leiber liked to light his cigarettes with red Swan Vestas. He liked to inhale the sulphur from them. Actually, he smoked a lot.
You played at the George Harrison tribute concert last year. Could you offer any reflections of that concert?
Very moving event. I was moved. I was very moved by Ravi Shankar's daughter as well. She's very beautiful and I've never seen an Indian conductor before. She conducted the Indian orchestra, yeah.
What did you play there?
Did you play your own song?
No, no it was George Harrison ...
I thought you were going to sing your own ...
Except for Ringo! Who actually did Honey Don't!
You have a new song called War Is Not Healthy. Is that a Brooker-Reid song?
It's a Brooker-Reid song. It's not finished. There was a bit of a war? (laughter) There was a bit of a scrap going on somewhere in the sand. Yes, it's an improvisation of some sort. Managed to sort of sing to the Germans a couple of times.
So it was an anti-war song ...
War is not healthy!
I totally agree. I was reading John Lennon gave you a lift on New Year's Eve in 1967.
You were walking down the road with your wife and he was driving ...
No, he was parked for some reason, I don't know why.
And he had A Whiter Shade of Pale playing on a phonograph in the car?
Yeah. (laughter) (he said) ‘Hey Gary!, come in!' (laughter) He had a bottle of champagne in there ... it was midnight. We got so fed up with the pub we were in or something that we said, ‘Oh, we can't wait for midnight, we'll go walking home.' And old Johnny opened his door on his Roller and (he said) ‘Hey Gary!, come in! (laughter)
Those were the days ...
A little champagne and a smoke, and we toddled off home again.
So any future plans for the band?
Not at all. Get through today.
One day at a time.Well we know what we're doing for the next two or three days. Certainly. Well, Geoff Whitehorn needs a special mention in your guitar magazine. He did a fine job.
And I love the Matthew Fisher-composed instrumental track on the new album.
The Signature. Well, it's his follow up to Repent Walpurgis as far as he's concerned.
It's also the thirtieth anniversary of Grand Hotel.
I didn't realize it's the thirtieth anniversary. It's always going to be the anniversary of something. In fact, it's the anniversary of something else, this weekend. Well, in 1977 when we decided we'd stop, we actually decided after the concert. We said, ‘That's it, then'. Just like that. And it was actually in New York. And it was ten years to the day since A Whiter Shade of Pale was released. That was May the eleventh, 1967. Here we are back in New York on that same weekend. Double anniversary.
|For a very special and memorable night, thanks to Gary
Brooker and Keith Reid, Geoff Whitehorn and www.procolharum.com, Jon
Paris and Eagle Records at www.eaglerockent.com, Roland Clare, Richard
'Hollywood' Cervone and May Pang at www.maypang.com
Silverstein reviews Procol Harum's live Danish CD
Geoff Whitehorn's page at BtP | The other half of this Brooker / Whitehorn interview